Anyone who listens to jazz most likely knows the name Bix Beiderbecke. This musician from Davenport had a huge impact on early jazz. And his music can still be heard on the shores of the Mississippi River.
A Young Start
The story begins in Davenport in 1903, when Leon 'Bix' Beiderbecke was born into a middle-class German-American family. His family was quite musical, and Bix began taking piano lessons at an early age. The lessons didn't last long because Bix learned quickly. Many say that he was able to play songs by memory after listening to them only a few times. After mastering the songs, he would create his own versions of the songs.
When he was young, Bix would often go down to the Davenport riverfront to listen to the music played on the steamboats. Some stories say that he would frequently sneak onto the steamboats to play the calliope, an organ-like instrument that plays steam whistles.
When his older brother returned home from World War I in 1918, he brought with him an early jazz record. Bix quickly fell in love with this unique form of music and wanted to learn to play it. He borrowed a cornet from a friend and taught himself to play without consulting a teacher or a book. The unique sound and unusual style of Bix came about from this self-instruction.
Off to Military School
Shortly after teaching himself to play cornet, Bix began sitting in with local bands and breathing new life into their music. Although most people today would consider Bix a child prodigy, his parents didn't see the value of his unique talent. They didn't appreciate the jazz style and thought he spent too much time on his music. To discourage him from devoting his life to being a jazz musician, his parents sent him to a military academy near Chicago. Bix didn't last long at the military school. Not long after arriving in the big city, Bix found many other ambitious and talented jazz musicians. He was soon spending all his time playing music again. And before long he was expelled for not attending his classes.
Two Jazz Greats Learn From Each Other
Bix brought his famous jazz sounds back home to Davenport. In 1919 he met another person who was also to become a jazz artist. Bix was still only 16 and Louis Armstrong was 19 when the Mississippi riverboat on which Armstrong was playing came to Davenport. The two young musicians greatly admired each other's unique style. Each studied the way the other played.
A Sad End
Bix later returned to Chicago to continue to play in jazz bands. This was the time of Prohibition, and the place to play jazz music was in speakeasies, illegal clubs where alcohol was still available. It was in these clubs that Bix developed his style and reputation playing for many bands throughout the nation. It was at this time that he began his fall into the depths of alcoholism.
Sadly, Bix Beiderbecke died in 1931 of complications from his alcoholism, and was brought home to Davenport for burial. He was only 28 years old.
The story of Bix and his music is important for many reasons. Although the child prodigy was trained on piano, he taught himself the cornet. His love for music and his determination to play the new jazz sounds he heard as a boy helped him develop a style that was unique. He was also one of the first white jazz musicians to be taken seriously by the mostly black jazz community. In his short life, he was able to have an enormous influence on many people.
Today, Bix Beiderbecke is considered one of the greatest jazz musicians of the 1920s. His hometown of Davenport still honors him, erecting memorials, preserving his boyhood home, establishing a museum showcasing his life and work, and has held the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Festival for many years.